In Unity There is Strength
After I met with the men from the Green Dot Initiative, I saw a cluster of brightly dressed women of varying ages coming up the stairs. Although they had clearly made an attempt to look lovely, I still recognized the telltale signs of poverty on their clean, but worn-out, saris. I recognized some of them from the yoga class I taught. As soon as they saw me, they start squealing. They kissed and hugged me, then introduced me to the other women I had not yet met. They held me close, very proud of their new friend. I loved being held and doted over by them! They treated me with a beautiful familiarity, which was sincere and loving. I was a sister and a guest, and they intended to show me nothing but hospitality. I was very excited to see them again and made a big fuss in return. All these women are the founding members of Sanghamitra.
Sanghamitra is a sex workers empowerment collective that was a vision of PSI/YouthAIDS programmers for many years. They hoped to create an organization of sex workers for sex workers to help empower them in all aspects of their lives. Being a sex worker has made these women vulnerable to harassment, violence, abuse, and neglect, with little or no legal or governmental support. They are often denied medical services and are treated disrespectfully. Women in India generally have little authority anyway, but sex workers are powerless to the whims of the system they work in. Sanghamitra was created with the intention that they establish a more powerful voice as a collective, community-based organization than they could independently.
The women who sat in front of me represented the original 17 that helped envision and set in motion the realization of Sanghamitra, its by-laws, and intentions. These women are all sex workers, some are madams, some are their "girl’s," most are illiterate, and all have been abused and victimized by the very system they now are standing up against. They are also some of the most bad-ass women I have ever had the privilege to meet.
In Indian mythology, Sanghamitra is the beautiful and wise daughter of Emperor Asoka, and the solitary motivation for his transformation from ruthless despot to a peaceful disciple of Buddhism. Sanghamitra, the providential name chosen by the women, is predestined to signify extraordinary change in their lives, toward a better, brighter future of hope and well-being.
Maya, the President of Sanghamirta, rose and made a speech welcoming those of us gathered in the room. Each office member stood and placed a beautiful purple scarf around our necks. They kissed our cheeks in gratitude for our presence there. I was moved by their sweet formality and their genuine graciousness. Maya proudly introduced us to the vice-president, a plump-faced woman with very few teeth, who smiled brightly regardless as her title was announced. We were introduced to the secretary; one of the few women in Sanghamitra who could read and write, and the treasurer—clearly the most successful madam in the group considering her jewelry and dress. To get these positions the members held an organized election. I could see their pride in this leadership, considering that before this these women have held no title other than whore. Their self-identity had shifted and their strength, willingness to lead, self-confidence, and commitment was apparent as a result.
Maya explained the objectives of Sanghamitra and how through brothel-to-brothel mobilization and one-to-one outreach, they were now have close to 200 women. They meet monthly to organize events, actions, and outreach activities concerning a variety of related issues.
I was enthralled looking around this circle. Weren't these women supposed to be the disenfranchised? Were these the same broken and victimized group of prostitutes that I have seen huddled in the corner stalls of brothels and staring blankly on the streets? By connecting with each other, sharing their struggles, victories, and truths, and unifying their intentions, these women were speaking with clarity and confidence about their goals and objectives. They intended to continue fighting for their rights! They intended to become a voice for the voiceless! I had no doubt that these brave women would succeed.
I got chills hearing Maya describe their objectives, realizing that I was in the presence of a movement that is transforming and empowering the life of women at the grassroots level. I recalled Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes, and I saw Sanghamitra as a similar collective with the parallel intentions to abolish discrimination and rally for equal rights. They explained that there were other collectives like this all around India working together to create change in women's lives. These women were radicals and mavericks. They are completely going outside of the box of what was expected of them, considering their rank in society.
Remember, sex workers are often sold into prostitution, forced into it by their families, or widowed at an early age (widows can not re-marry and are often sent to live their lives in hostels where begging and prostitution become necessary for survival). It is normal to arrange a marriage at birth, and these girls are often sent far from home to become enslaved by their in-laws as servants or trafficked out. Since these women are neglected, without education, humiliated, alone, often beaten, they do not have the will or wherewithal to fight, argue, or disobey. They are filled with fear, shame, and loneliness.
Do you understand what it has taken for the women of Sanghamitra to get organized the way they have? Not only are they fighting against years of personal abuse and neglect, but they are also rejecting a cultural expectation of women as powerless and submissive! To me, it is nothing short of an act of God that these women have recognized these injustices, have decided them intolerable, and are no longer willing to wait for someone else to fix or change their circumstances. They are rallying and making it happen on their own!
They fight knowing that there are many risks, including wrath from other women, abuse from husbands or madams, even imprisonment. They also know the obvious outcome to lives like theirs: sickness, poverty, and death. To them, living with the solid intention to create change is a risk they'll live with, rather then continue to live isolated and defeated. They are refusing to allow this corrupt, abusive, and oppressive system to continue to dictate their lives. They are supplanting themselves, as a collective voice, into mainstream society without shame, apology, or fear. It's all for one purpose: To insist on a better life for themselves and others. Their desire to protect themselves, each other, and the children they love, is stronger than the fear of being socially and physically persecuted.
Maya explained some of the group's main objectives. They want to decrease their levels of vulnerability, unite in their efforts to adopt healthy sexual behavior as a norm within their community, and restrict the spread of HIV/AIDS and STIs. They also planned to increase membership, increase legal awareness, create a more secure environment for their children, ensure correct and non-judgmental medical care, unite in a common goal that all sex workers insist on condom use, improve relationships with brothel owners and sex workers, and ensure equal access to civic services (receiving ration and election cards and banking services).
YouthAIDS has come in to help provide moral and logistical support, assist the women to raise a platform to address issues and build the capacity of the women, particularly in terms of increased motivation and self-esteem to enhance their decision-making abilities. They also provide Sanghamitra, especially in the initial stages, with constructive council on the successful establishment and recognition as an organization that operates within the parameters of the law.
As a result of their efforts, Sanghamitra is now an organized collective that is recognized and officially registered with the Mumbai Charities Commission and an independent entity under the Societies Registration Act of 1860.
I asked the women how their lives had changed since they joined Sanghamitra. A very young woman named Sumna explained that before Sanghamitra, she lived isolated and alone. She had no friends, and each day consisted of work, cooking, and cleaning. She was lonely. She now has a network of friends. She loves the company of women and feels more confident because if something goes wrong, if she gets hurt, persecuted, or lied to, she feels she has women in her life that have her best interest at heart. She believes that they care about her, and will aid, guide, and support her in her life.
Pooja told us that before Sanghamitra she would mind her own business and would never consider interfering in any one else's life. Since her involvement, she feels more confident and out spoken. She told of a sex worker named Aroona who, because she was pregnant, was thrown out of her brothel by her madam. Aroona was very ill when Pooja found her on the street. Concerned about Aroona and her baby, Pooja took her to the hospital, but the hospital wouldn't admit Aroona without her husband's consent! Pooja went home and insisted her own husband come and sign in as the girls' husband. She was able to get the proper attention so she lived. Pooja then went to the brothel owner with other members of Sanghamitra. They appealed her decision to throw her out. They argued on Aroona's behalf. The brothel owner took her back. Pooja said that she would have never felt empowered enough to do that if she didn't feel the strength of the sisterhood behind her.
Then a very beautiful, Nepalese woman named Somany spoke. Somany was clearly a successful madam. She spoke with authority and I could tell the other women respected her. She shared how the Indian government was voting on a bill to enforce the policies of illegal prostitution. Although it's illegal, most sex workers are only arrested if caught soliciting on the street. What goes on inside their homes and brothels is often overlooked. Policemen are not even permitted inside a brothel after 7 p.m. without the escort of a female cop to prevent the officer from raping the women—a common practice. If this measure passed, it would crack down on brothel-based business, putting thousands and thousands of women out of work to starve to death on the streets. Sanghamitra rented a bus and drove from Mumbai to Delhi where they demonstrated in front of the Parliament. There was violence and tear gas, and many of the girls were harassed, hit, screamed at, and even arrested. They did not back down. Hundreds and hundreds of impoverished sex workers from all over India ralleyed together and fought for their rights. They asked for laws to protect sex workers, not criminalize them when there was no other system in place for their survival. All of the women refused to leave until they were heard. The bill was not passed and the women were free to continue earning a living.
The women of Sanghamitra are very clear that they would all love for their situation to be different, but until some major changes take place they intend to do whatever is necessary to continue empowering themselves, make certain their rights are protected, their livelihood ensured, and their opinions heard.
These women are a strong and effective voice for change, and a brilliant model of what can happen when we come together to serve a belief, and each other, to fight oppression and persecution. Their motto is "In Unity there is Strength."